PSA Set Registry
Collecting the Home Run King of Japan
by Kevin Glew
If you ask the average American baseball fan to name one legendary Japanese player, their answer will be Sadaharu Oh.
"Sadaharu Oh had a big impact on baseball around the world, and what I've found among [American] baseball card collectors is that it seems like every vintage collector has heard of him and probably can't name another vintage Japanese player," said Gary Engel, author of the Japanese Baseball Card Checklist and Price Guide.
This was the case for Rob Fitts in the early 1970s, but he has since evolved into an authority on Japanese baseball history.
"Early on, Oh was the only Japanese baseball player I had ever heard of," said Fitts, who self-published The Sadaharu Oh Baseball Card Checklist in 2002. "I started following baseball in 1975, and in 1977, Oh broke Hank Aaron's all-time home run record. That was in all the sports sections in the United States, so being a young baseball fan throughout the late 1970s, I learned about who he was."
In Japan, Oh had been a well-known star since he began consistently clubbing home runs in the early 1960s. He finished with a record 868 in his 22-year career. And there was no shortage of baseball cards produced of Oh in Japan while he was rewriting the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) record book.
"His cards in the United States are the most popular of any Japanese player," said Engel. "In the United States, Oh is the king when it comes to cards. He's the Mickey Mantle of Japanese cards."
Oh was born in Tokyo on May 10, 1940. His father was Chinese and his mother was Japanese. Together they operated a small restaurant in Tokyo's Asakusa neighborhood. It was Oh's older brother, Tetsushiro, that taught him about baseball and took him to Yomiuri Giants games.
Oh evolved into a star pitcher at Waseda Jitsugyo High School where he led his team to a championship at the prestigious Spring Koshien high school tournament in 1957.
After high school, he signed with the Yomiuri Giants. Still primarily a pitcher, Oh was quickly convinced that his future was as a hitter, though he was hardly an instant star. In his rookie campaign, he'd play first base and bat just .161 in 94 games. He improved in his second and third seasons, but it wasn't until he worked closely with former Japanese big leaguer Hiroshi Arakawa that he would blossom. It was Arakawa who helped Oh develop his trademark flamingo leg kick stance.
Oh would break out in his fourth NPB season and win his first of 13 consecutive Japan Central League home run titles. In 22 seasons with the Giants, he was named to 18 All-Star teams, won nine Central League MVP Awards, five batting titles and two Triple Crowns, and was a member of 11 Japan Series-winning teams.
"He had a very high on-base percentage. He could hit for average. He could obviously hit for power and he was a great fielder," said Fitts. "And he was an upright citizen, so he was kind of a natural hero."
Nate Leech, who owns the No. 1 Sadaharu Oh Master Set on the PSA Set Registry, points out that Oh broke the professional home run record despite his less-than-imposing frame.
These days, baseball players are physically impressive, observes Leech. Someone like Aaron Judge bashes the ball right out of the park, and that's simply what he's expected to do given his physique. But then you see someone like Oh, who was 5-foot-10 and 180-something pounds, and you get a completely different image. When you look at his baseball cards or pictures, you don't expect an Aaron Judge-type force, yet he also put up Nintendo-like numbers, noted Leech.
Critics contend that Oh belted his 868 home runs in smaller parks against inferior pitching in Japan, but Leech has grown tired of hearing this.
"Whatever the disparity is between Japanese baseball and the United States, it probably can never be proven," said Leech. "And regarding the whole debate over whether he's the all-time home run king or not, all I can say is that he has hit more than anyone else, regardless of the stadium size."
His home run hitting prowess is the reason he's the most collected vintage Japanese player in the United States, but his cards can still be purchased for relatively reasonable prices.
"I don't remember any Oh card ever selling for five figures," said Engel.
Fitts has noticed an increased interest in vintage Oh cards, but he believes that many of them are still a bargain.
"There are about five or six Oh rookies that you could get in [ungraded] GOOD 2 condition for under $100 now," said Fitts. "[Ungraded] VG 3 examples tend to run more like $100 to $125, which I think is a bargain."
Here's a rundown of some of Oh's key cards.
In 1959, Oh's rookie season, Japanese companies released menko (a Japanese card flipping game), bromides (a category of commercial photographic portraits), and candy/gum cards highlighting the perennial home run champ. The vast majority of his rookies were menko.
It's hard to pinpoint how many rookies were manufactured because the Japanese trading card hobby was not well organized until the early 1990s and many of the cards do not display any company information on them. Fitts estimates that there are between 60 and 80 Oh rookies in total, but it would be difficult to collect all of them.
"The production runs on Japanese baseball cards are ridiculously small," said Leech. "They almost mirror what we call a short print, and by that, I mean some of your insert short prints. I'm not even talking about a short-print variation in Topps."
1959 Hoshi Gangu Rookie (JCM 24). This is the closest Oh has to a defining rookie card. This 1-5/8" by 2-5/8"menko presents a headshot of Oh with an image of his Giants teammate Shigeo Nagashima swinging a bat at the top. The most common version boasts a white border, but there are also rarer gold and red border parallels.
"That's one of the most popular Oh rookies because I think some time in the early 1990s, somebody found several boxes of the Hoshi Gangu cards," shared Engel.
The veteran hobbyist explains that many of the cards out of these boxes were in fairly high-grade condition, but some had poor centering. Fitts says a lot of these cards were purchased by American collectors.
"That's why it's probably the most recognized Oh rookie," said Fitts, adding that the red and gold border parallels were not in these boxes.
Six white-bordered cards have been submitted and there are three PSA NM-MT 8s. One PSA 8 OC was listed for $6,000 on eBay in November 2017. Just three of the gold version have been evaluated and the sole PSA 8 is the top example.
1959 Shukan Shonen (Boys Weekly) Magazine (JBR 61). According to Engel, this 2-1/4" by 5" single was part of a three-card strip released in the April 9, 1959, issue of Shukan Shonen (Boys Weekly) magazine. The front offers a photo of Oh with his name and position, while the back presents stats and biographical information.
Engel believes this is one of the earliest - if not the earliest - Oh rookies. He owns copies of the original magazine with the cards still intact, and promotional wording on the publication's spine indicates that the magazine was released in March 1959.
"We don't know the dates that the other rookies were issued in 1959, but we know this one is either the first one or one of the early ones," said Engel.
There has yet to be an example of Oh's card graded by PSA.
1959 Doyusha (JCM 30b) #2148631. Fitts says Oh's second-most common rookie is likely his 1959 Doyusha single. This 1-13/16" by 3" menko features a color image on the front surrounded by white borders.
"This card has him batting," said Fitts. "It's a pretty common menko. Some of them have shown up in unopened material lately."
Fitts notes that this card is regularly off-center and that ungraded EX+ 5.5 condition examples will likely sell in the $400 range.
Of the 12 submitted to PSA, the three PSA 8s represent the highest-graded examples.
1960 Jintan Gum (JF 8 and JF 9). Measuring 3/4" by 2-3/4", these narrow singles are part of two separate larger series. One card from these series was included in a pack of gum. These singles present a black-and-white image of Oh on the front against a single-color background. Oh's team name, surname, and the manufacturer's name are also highlighted on the front, while the back presents text in Japanese.
The number in the white space below the photo is what distinguishes the JF 8 and JF 9 cards. This number is Oh's position on his JF 8 card, while it's his uniform number on his JF 9 card.
"They're relatively rare. They used to be super rare," said Fitts. "When Gary's guide first came out [in 1993] and my Oh guide [in 2002], you didn't see many. But since the equivalent of Japanese eBay has been online, there have been people cleaning out their attics and they're now more common. They [the Oh cards] tend to run $400 to $500 each in decent [VG+ 3.5] condition."
1964 Morinaga Standups (JF 1) and Top Star (JF 2). With a design resembling that of the 1964 Topps Stand-Up series, the white-bordered, 1964 Morinaga Standups cards (JF 1) measure 3-1/2" by 5-1/2" each. The Oh card flaunts a color photo of him in a batting pose on the front with data about him on the back. The front of Oh's Top Star card (JF 2) boasts the same image, but the back does not fold out.
These cards are popular in the U.S. because some of them were imported into the country in the late 1960s.
Six of the Standups have been submitted and the highest-graded copy is a PSA EX-MT+ 6.5. Meanwhile, six Top Star cards have been evaluated, with a PSA 8 representing the highest grade.
1967 Kabaya-Leaf #11. The 105-card, 1967 Kabaya-Leaf series is the most collected Japanese vintage set in the U.S. Similar to the Morinaga cards, a significant quantity of these were imported into the U.S. in the late 1960s.
Measuring 2-3/8" by 3-3/8" each, these are the first Japanese cards to resemble American cards. Two different front designs are employed in the set: one that showcases the player's photo in a circle (similar to the 1959 Topps cards) and a second with a large photo taking up the bulk of the front with the player name in a colored rectangle at the bottom (similar to the 1963 Topps cards). The Oh card, which features the slugger smiling with a bat on his shoulder, employs the latter design. This is one of Oh's most valuable and coveted non-rookie singles.
"It's condition sensitive in the same way the 1953 Topps cards are, where the bottom border is composed of solid colors so it's hard to get cards that don't have some wear," explained Engel.
Of the 18 sent into PSA, the two PSA 8s are the highest-graded examples.
Seeking to increase sales, Japanese snack manufacturer Calbee began attaching cards to their products (mostly potato chips) in 1973. Calbee cards are generally printed on high-quality stock and feature full-bleed photos on their fronts, with backs that present information about the player in Japanese.
Fitts notes that up until the late 1990s, just one of these cards was packaged with each snack, and that was the only way to obtain them. So you would have had to purchase a lot of chips to find an Oh card. Oh has been featured on over 500 Calbee cards over the years.
1973 (JC 1) & 1973/74 (JC 2) Calbee #7. Oh is featured on six cards (#7 to #12) in the first two Calbee sets. These cards are identical except that the back of the 1973 (JC 1) cards have a crossed bats design at the top, while the 1973/74 cards (JC 2) showcase a flag.
"I would say Oh's most popular Calbee card would be his Calbee rookie from 1973," said Engel. "But the lowest numbered card (#7) would be the most popular."
Just three have been submitted to PSA and the sole PSA 8 represents the top specimen.
1977 Calbee (JC 5g) - with Hank Aaron #93. Part of a series devoted to Oh breaking Aaron's all-time home run record in 1977, this horizontal card presents a sepia-toned photo of Aaron and Oh together from a home run hitting contest that was staged in 1974. It was part of a final, 10-card series that was released only in the Osaka area in Japan.
"It's super rare," said Fitts. "In Japan, they go for $300 or $400 in any condition."
For more information on Sadaharu Oh trading cards, please visit https://www.psacard.com/cardfacts/#13baseball-cards.
Please feel free to contact Kevin Glew at [email protected] if you have any additional information or comments. The codes you see in brackets after each set name (e.g., JCM 24) are those assigned by Gary Engel in the Japanese Baseball Card Checklist and Price Guide. Thank you to Nate Leech, Rob Fitts, and Robert Edward Auctions for providing cards and images for the article. Please note that the Population Report figures quoted and Set Registry rankings reported are those as of February 2018.
Copyright © 2018 PSA – A Division of Collectors Universe. Nasdaq: CLCT. All rights reserved.